Editor Malinda Zehner Guerra has earned her fourth Emmy nomination alongside Emmy winners Stephanie Filo (ACE) and Taylor Joy Mason (ACE) for their work on “A Black Lady Sketch Show. “
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” has the rare distinction of winning the category of “Outstanding Picture Editing For Variety Programming” for two consecutive years.
Nominated for the episode, “My Love Language Is Words Of Defamation,” this is Guerra’s first scripted nomination. Her previous three Emmy-nominations came from her work on reality programs, MTV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Hulu’s “Born This Way,” and Max’s “Naked & Afraid XL.”
“I started my entertainment career as an actor, so I approach editing through the ideas that “acting is reacting” and then the improv rule of “yes…and,” shares Guerra. “I’m always combing the dailies for moments of subtext in a performance that enhances and builds on what is being said, which might not always be from the actor delivering the line.”
Guerra spoke to Awards Focus about her career trajectory, working on a scripted sketch show, and working with her Emmy winning collaborators (and fellow nominees).
Awards Focus: Can you take us through a typical day in the editing chair of “A Black Lady Sketch Show?” What does a daily assignment look like, and how do you collaborate with your editing team to meet the post production needs of the show?
Malinda Zehner Guerra: The process of editing a sketch show is very unique. Every couple days you’re starting from scratch in a whole new world. One day I could be cutting a Bridgerton inspired sketch and then I’m on to a Soap Opera, which requires vastly different music and pacing.
So, before jumping into a new sketch, I like to check our tone grid to see what show or genre the writers are referencing, and watch some examples to get a feel for the pacing and music that make it distinct. That really helps get me in the right frame of mind to get into the dailies and start putting it all together. There can be a lot of moving pieces, but our post team from Post Producer Gwyn Martin-Morris to our amazing AEs keep it all organized so it’s super easy to have everything you need.
AF: The show is hilarious, and it feels all the more funny with smart editing cuts. Can you walk us through a scene you edited that exemplifies comedy editing at its best?
MZG: I think one of my favorite sketches to cut this season was “Fresh to Def”, which was our murder podcast sketch. The dichotomy of the two characters made it so fun to play with in the edit. Robin Thede’s “Dilly Byrd” is this smooth voiced podcaster with these wonderful dramatic pauses that I would slowly move closer and closer to as she draws us into her crime story.
Just as you’re really getting into it, smash cut out to “Max Toomuch” played by Tamara Jade interrupting the podcast with the loudest, most over the top commercial break. The goal was to throw you off guard so much that you’d burst out laughing and have to go back to watch her performance. That will probably be one of the craziest jump scares I will ever cut.
AF: Is there much collaboration happening with you and other post specialties? What does that conversation look like?
MZG: The post process on the series is very collaborative. Stephanie Filo, Taylor Joy Mason and I would share sketches with each other to get feedback and see what made each other laugh. And we’d try to have a zoom happy hour on Fridays with our AEs to show them the sketches we’d been working on during the week. It’s always great to hear their laughs and have them share their thoughts, because they knew the footage as well as we did after prepping the dailies and working on script sync. Those collaborations were really valuable to get our sketches in great shape to send them off.
AF: From an acting standpoint, what do you look for in selecting a good take, and how do you cut and weave the best performances into the narrative?
MZG: I started my entertainment career as an actor, so I approach editing through the ideas that “acting is reacting” and then the improv rule of “yes…and”. I’m always combing the dailies for moments of subtext in a performance that enhances and builds on what is being said, which might not always be from the actor delivering the line. Sometimes the little eye rolls or under the breath responses are what really make a performance sing, and they also help elevate the jokes.
There was no shortage of these options from the cast, but I have to say Skye Townsend is incredibly adept at working these little gems into her performance. For example, in “Frock of Shit” she would randomly scratch herself because it was Regency England and Lady Shein probably had fleas. Those little details that our actors bring to a character are what make ABLSS so fun and real.
AF: Was there ever a time during the course of this show that you offered a suggestion in post that altered the script or direction for the better? What was it, and how did you fight for your take?
MZG: There is a ton of improv on “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and Robin’s directive is to always make the funniest sketch possible. That gave us plenty of room to make different choices than what was scripted. My first pass would normally be fairly close to the script because that would be hilarious as written, but I’d also have some altenates prepared to show.
We’d get into a session and start playing around with all the different options and trying out everyone’s ideas and put them together, and the end product was always a new level of hilarity. Robin really loves the post process so all ideas were welcome, no matter how crazy because they always lead to an even funnier sketch in the end.
AF: We’ve talked about smart cuts aiding in the storytelling, but what about moments when you chose not to cut away? How do you select moments to keep as they are, in the wide? Do you have an example from “A Black Lady Sketch Show?“
MZG: Our cast is amazing at using physical comedy in unexpected ways and those were moments that I would always try to play in a wide so that you get the full picture of what they were doing. At the end of “The Bold and The Cubicle,” Gabrielle Dennis pretends to faint into her desk chair and then proceeds to slowly slide off the chair onto the floor, finishing with a dramatic leg flop.
All this is going on while the other characters are finishing out the scene so that was played in the wide and just added to the chaos and hilarity unfolding at the end.
AF: Can you talk about the rhythm of the show? How did you feel into the overall rhythm of A Black Lady Sketch Show, and how did you use editing to also ensure each sketch felt fresh?
MZG: Robin loves a super tight edit with hardly any air between lines so sketches move at a blistering pace. You’re always looking for moments to add reactions or lines from characters off camera that you might not notice on your first watch. That really makes a sketch feel full of life and encourages the viewer to go back and watch again to pick up on those little things they may have missed the first time.
There were so many times while we were mixing the show that I would notice something in Steph or Taylor’s sketches that I had missed in all of our previous screenings. I think that’s a big part of why people love ABLSS so much, you can watch it over and over and it’s a little different every time.
AF: You’ve been nominated for four Emmy awards, the latest for your work on the fourth episode of season four, “My Love Language is Words of Defamation.” Why does this episode stand out as an Emmy submission when compared with the hilarious episodes of “A Black Lady Sketch Show?”
MZG: It was so hard to pick an episode to submit because they all have so many great sketches, but we chose episode four, “My Love Language is Words of Defamation” because it really highlights the range of sketches we had this season.
It has a great mix of genres, including our Monty Python inspired “Gladys and the Knights of the Round Table” and opens with “Fresh to Def”, our murder podcast sketch, which was across the board a team favorite. It also features a few of our fan favorite sketches and characters, including a return to the Black Lady Courtroom which has become such a signature sketch for the series and also guest stars Issa Rae and Yvette Nicole Brown.